MINORITY BLOC REPORT FINDS:
The House of Representatives minority bloc reported yesterday that records they reviewed show that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres took 102 trips from January 2015 to July 2020 that cost the CNMI government at least $490,000 in airfare, per diem and stipends, lodging, ground transportation, boat transportation, fuel, and incidentals.
In the same 24-page report, the minority lawmakers also noted that, because Torres nearly always traveled with companions, including his wife, personal security detail, other staff, and other officials at government expense, the total actual cost of executive travel during the period in review is “significantly greater.”
They said the reviewed records showed that first lady Diann Torres traveled with Torres on at least 31 government-funded trips between December 2016 and December 2019.
They lawmakers recommended that legislative oversight into Torres’ public expenditures should continue into the 22nd Legislature.
The report was signed by House minority leader Rep. Christina Sablan (D-Saipan) and Reps. Franklin Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan), Richard Lizama (D-Saipan), Sheila Babauta (D-Saipan), and Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota).
Sablan informed House members about their report and briefly discussed it during the House’s sine die or final session yesterday morning.
The minority lawmakers noted that the law requires that every government travel should be for official business purposes and undertaken to benefit the people of the CNMI. Further, they said, within 15 days after a trip, the traveler is required to submit a detailed report and documented travel expenditures.
The lawmakers said the law prohibits the use of government funds for first-class, business-class, or any other premium-class travel.
As of press time yesterday, Saipan Tribune was still waiting for comments from Torres and first lady Diann Torres, who was also included in the report’s findings.
The minority members recommend that legislative oversight should be conducted on the Department of Finance to review the status of adoption of uniform travel regulations for the government, and the implementation of Finance policy regarding official representation and reimbursements.
They said the Legislature should pass a law to eliminate government housing benefits for key elected officials and to explicitly prohibit by law the use of public funds to pay the utility bills of any government officials, or of any persons, at their private residences.
They said lawmakers should engage the Office of the Attorney General and/or the Office of the Public Auditor in looking into alleged waste, fraud or abuse of public funds, misconduct, and other violations of law. “We urge for a fair, diligent, and responsible investigation, with the ultimate goal of improving accountability for public funds and restoring trust in the people’s government,” said the six minority lawmakers in the report.
They said Torres should be afforded due process and the opportunity to respond to issues of concerns.
According to reports, of Torres’ 102 government trips, 78 involved travel outside of the CNMI and at least 40 of these trips were first-class—in violation of the law on restrictions on government-paid travel outside the CNMI. They said government travel records indicate that first-class and business-class airfare costs for Torres alone during the period in review totaled approximately $178,000.
They said the records of some of these trips are incomplete, lacking supporting documents such as travel vouchers with itemized costs of travel tickets or itineraries, and some trips may have involved the use of frequent flyer mileage or similar upgrades from economy-class fare.
Torres’ wife also allegedly traveled first-class and business-class at government expense in violation of the law and Finance regulation, which bars the use of public funds to cover travel expenditures for nongovernment employees. In general, the minority lawmakers said, spouses of government officials are not recognized as official government positions.
They said the records reviewed showed that Diann Torres traveled on at least 31 government-funded trips between December 2016 and December 2019.
Of these 31 trips, they noted, 27 were with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, including 14 first-class and business-class trips between January 2017 and December 2019, and that airfare costs alone for Diann Torres during this period totaled $82,000.
Minority lawmakers said the cost to the government for first-class and business-class airfare alone for Torres and his wife totaled $22,674.
They said Diann Torres traveled on at last four government-paid trips without the governor, including charter flights to Rota and Tinian, and a business-class trip to Palau, with airfare and lodging for the four trips totaling approximately $3,700.
In nearly all cases, they said that, according to the travel records, Diann Torres’ trips were requested by Gov. Ralph Torres, authorized by Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios or a Cabinet member, and approved by the Finance secretary.
They said the records reviewed generally do not provide a public purpose justification for the use of government funds to pay for Diann Torres’ travels accompanying Gov. Ralph Torres, nor any description of her role in any official business conducted during these trips.
Torres allegedly failed to submit timely and detailed trip reports for nearly all of his travel outside of the CNMI and that Torres appears to have conducted personal and political activities while on government travel, and that there are no trip reports or other documentation accounting for official business conducted during extended trips off-island.
They said Torres’ trip to the Northern Islands in June-July 2020 cost the CNMI more than $90,000 in public funds, government personnel time, and public assets.
In the summer of 2020, Torres accompanied social media personality Robert Arrington of the YouTube show Deer Meat for Dinner to Pagan in a trip to promote the CNMI as a world-class destination, and particularly the Northern Islands as a “high-end” ecotourism destination.
The lawmakers said Torres and his family, friends, and associates accompanied the Arrington family and crew on the expedition to the Northern Islands for several weeks in June to July 2020—a trip during which multiple violations of Commonwealth law and regulations appear to have occurred, according to the report.
In their recommendation for Legislative oversight on Finance, minority lawmakers said Finance should provide a timeline by which the government travel regulations proposed on Sept. 28, 2020, will be officially adopted and Finance should report to the Legislature on the implementation of policies regarding the official representation and reimbursements.
On eliminating government housing benefits, minority members said lawmakers should ask Attorney General Edward Manibusan’s opinion whether public funds previously expended on elected officials’ personal utility bills may be recovered by the government.
The minority lawmakers said that violations of law that may warrant investigation and possible prosecution by the OAG and/or the OPA should include illegal first-class and business-class travel funded by the government, misuse of financial instruments, illegal release of Sambar deer into the wild, misconduct in public office, and the unlawful use of public funds for personal or political purposes and the recovery of these funds.
The minority lawmakers said the incoming 22nd Legislature should continue the work that began in the 21st Legislature to further examine whether Torres has committed any misconduct in office or abuse of public funds, and whether any violations identified rise to the level of censure, impeachment, or other legislative action.
They said key witnesses should be summoned to the 22nd Legislature. These witnesses, they said, should include the current and former Finance secretaries, current and former executive security officers and other administration staff, and individuals named in Torres’ requests for reimbursement or other records of public expenditures.
The minority members’ investigation started on Dec. 10, 2019, when they submitted a request for documents to Finance under the Open Government Meetings and Records Act, seeking records of public expenditures related to executive travel, official representation, reimbursements, executive security services, and allowances for housing and/or utilities for public officials from Oct. 1, 2014, through Dec. 10, 2019.
On that same day of Dec. 10, the minority wrote House Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao (R-Saipan) to ask him to appoint a special committee to investigate Torres. Attao subsequently referred the matter to the Committee on Ways and Means and the Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operation with instructions to report back on their findings as soon as possible.
Minority lawmakers reviewed approximately 4,600 pages of documents but said that, despite the large volume of records provided, Finance still had not fully complied with the OGA, eight months after their initial OGA request. They said some records had yet to be located or turned over, according to Finance staff, and certain records had been redacted without justification.
These redacted records, they lawmakers said, consisted primarily of receipts showing the last four digits of at least 24 different credit cards used to cover expenses for which Torres was reimbursed.
Last July 16, Attao established the Special Committee on Fiscal Review of Executive Expenditure to review Torres’ public expenditures.
The minority members’ report said the special committee’s investigation was interrupted by several events such as budget deliberations for fiscal year 2021, 21 days of early voting, general election, and two more weeks of absentee ballot receipts.
For yesterday’s report, approximately, 7,600 pages of records related to Torres’ expenditures were reviewed, according to the lawmakers.
They said their report focuses on Torres’ public expenditures from January 2015 to July 2020 related to travel, official representation, reimbursements, and utility benefits.
The House Special Committee on Fiscal Review of Executive Expenditures chaired by Rep. Ralph N. Yumul (R-Saipan) has not come to a decision on their review of Torres’ expenditures. He wants to be relieved of his duties and for the documents, testimony, and records that they gathered be sent to OPA.